Master Xun, Words and Purva Mimamsa

A guest post by Atreya

Master Xun is one of the earliest sources on a Chinese theory of language. While it is part of an already established tradition, he presents this theory with a personal twist. In general, it is extremely practical at the societal level with his focus being on properly setting the Way based on human interactions and hierarchies, and any involvement with the Divine is simply mechanical and transactional. Chapter 22 of the Xunzi, “Correct Naming,” deals with the upholding of proper names and statements and tells us of the cultivated man, the Sage and the Ruler in dealing with words.

The interest in correct naming is primarily based on the assertion that proper names and statements set people on the correct Way. It must be kept in mind that by “names,” Master Xun means words in general and by “statements” he means commands, orders and teachings. Names aren’t just abstractions that exist independently for Master Xun. Rather, they come with ceremonies and roles and in uttering words, one is placing himself, the listener and the thing being named in a hierarchy that comes with set roles, duties and expectations. The word “King,” for example, is inherently hierarchical and comes with respect. As a consequence, exalted things are assigned high names for they deserve them on virtue of setting people in action. The performative aspect of names can be seen in ritual, with degradation and stagnation being caused by improper names. The regulation of names, and by extension ritual, is the duty of the Ruler. For the Ruler to be successful and his achievements to last, he should follow proper naming and ensure that false names are not constructed or take root.

Now names and statements are just tools to differentiate between kinds and forms, upholding the clarity of distinction. Whatever the relationship between the word and the thing, the names place it in a hierarchy according each a different level of respect. Proper names are not abstract but like standard units, they convey an idea of expectation. It is against this background that Master Xun asserts the first distinction that proper names make: that between the base and the exalted. This is extended to ritual and its division of duty, which words make concrete. Secondly, Heaven has divided things into kinds, with classes of their own, with certain differences that are qualified and set in order. For Master Xun, in addition to this, human effort is needed to align ourselves with the Way. It is through right names that a pattern is imposed upon this natural distinction.The distinction of kinds also considers causal factors, which the senses verify and explain the Universe through names. For this, the conventions of the Sages (For Master Xun the Zhou era ones) are prioritized as they were cultivated ones who grasped action under Heaven, while noting the limits of Nature. Master Xun’s third concern is to maintain the distinction of things through the differences in names.

The Ruler must prevent different things from having same or similar names and vice versa. He should ensure that depending on the level of generality; single, compound and overlapping names are regulated to prevent confusion. Constructed and false names must be dealt with, otherwise heretical appropriation would follow. Since the names and sentences lack any inherent qualities, the appropriate distinction is to be drawn based on the different starting points, because things with different origins would have different natures. By extension, different names would denote different origins of the things they signify. Similarly, for forms and patterns, expressions are set apart with different origins. The same argument is applied for distinction between objects of the same kind.

The reasons for this fixation of Master Xun are that ensuring consistency in the Ruler’s speech will prevent the masses to be confused and lead them to follow the Way, to minimize paradoxes that heretics might exploit, to uphold a difference between honour and the disorder of disgrace and to ensure proper action and inaction through agreement at multiple levels.

In Arya thought, sound has an exalted spot. It is through sound that a connection with the Divine is established and the Gods propitiated. This idea of the Power of Sound can even be traced down to offshoots that have sprung out of Arya Dharma, from Zoroastrianism to Sikhism. The treatment of sound and words by the Acharyas of Purva Mimamsa is extremely fascinating. The theory of language that was developed by them arose out of need to refute the Buddhists and to establish the supremacy of the Veda. By demonstrating the eternity of all words, by showing that words without human origin do not possess flaws that one would expect from words of human origin and by declaring the unauthored nature of the Veda, they intended to establish its supremacy over Buddhist doctrines. The auspicious sequences of words from the Veda when uttered with proper procedure would ensure one attains a transcendental result. Now calling the Purva Mimamsaka understanding as a mechanical transaction would be doing great disservice to the Acharyas, but a comparison has to start somewhere. But of course, to them the Gods and Mantras are of higher concern than societal power. Of concern to the present discussion is the treatment of words and their eternity by the Acharyas of Purva Mimamsa, now that we have established the context.

The performative aspect of language is primarily introduced, as it is through a sacred set of words that an otherwise incomprehensible knowledge is attained. The Intangible and sense independent set of words of the Veda are a means to properly experience Dharma and it is through words that Dharma is defined, along which lives are lived. But first, the argument of eternality of words is extended to all words. Jaimini’s Purva Mimamsa Sutra 1.1.5 famously declares that “The relationship between a word and its meaning is unborn and consequently injunction (The Veda) is the means of knowing dharma. It is unfailing in regard to objects not perceived. It is authoritative according to Badarayana specially as it is independent or self-sufficient in authority.” One idea to keep in mind that the link between the words and the meanings is real and exists in another plane, the perception of relation is eternal in spite of human folly. The opposition to this that humans can recognise things only after both the thing and word arise independently, the Acharyas assert that the relationship between word and object is not a product of human cognition. Just as this is eternal, words are too. In defense of this position, 1.1.12 to 1.1.23 are dedicated.

Uttering of words is simply making them manifest its sound, but not the cause of the word. The momentary perception of words is the theory at hand. And perception can extend long after utterance, but existence is not momentary. Next, production of the word is not creation of words. A multitude of people listening to the same word simultaneously does not imply a multiple existence of the same word, but rather simply perception. The changes in words are changes in the tone, but not the words themselves. The point is that uttering of the word is not the creation of words, but an expression of words. The comprehension of words is due to their eternity. The lack of cause for their destruction also hints at the same thing.

Master Xun’s focus then, with respect to a Purva Mimamsa theory of words, is to preserve a correct utterance of the names assigned by the Sages.

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